My house was on the slopes of Bel Air – not the one in Los Angeles. The fruit bats always came to sup on the mangoes outside the bedroom window. It was like listening in on a large and boisterous cocktail party as they shrieked and chattered and scolded one another while fighting for access to the ripest fruit. They would stay for hours, shuffling along the branches, making their high-pitched squeals and cackling hysterically, or so it seemed to a human ear.
Along with smaller, more cryptic – harder to spot – sheath-tailed bats, the fruit bats are Seychelles’ only endemic land mammals. With a wing span of a metre and a body the size of a small dog they are some of the largest bats on Earth. On these islands, they roost just below the ridges of the granite mountain slopes, sheltered from prevailing winds, but high enough to catch the rising thermals of late afternoon. The hour before sunset is the best time to see them cruising above the dense tropical tree canopy, sometimes flying several miles from one island to another.
Pteropus seychellensis are old-world megabats, commonly known as flying foxes. Their fur is golden-brown or russet and their large brown eyes make them appear friendly and curious up close. They have the endearing habit of shuffling, upside down of course, along a branch to snuggle up to one another during their daytime roost, and if you get too close they will often wrap each other in the dark stretchy wing skin of their upper arms.
No one is quite sure how many giant fruit bats remain in Seychelles, although on the main island of Mahé their habitat has been reduced by increased pressure from house building on the mountain slopes. The most recent studies suggest a population of around 10,000 bats on the half-dozen or so largest islands, with a particularly big colony on Silhouette. Twelve miles from Mahé, this prettiest of isles rises to 2,500 feet and covers around 5,000 acres. Inaccessible slopes and a tiny human population concentrated on one small stretch of coastline leave the bats free to exploit the mountain slopes with their dense stands of Albizia, Indian almond and breadfruit.
You don’t have to look very hard to see the fruit bats. They will fly along the beach at dusk, and even venture out in the middle of the day if conditions are right. Unlike smaller species, the megabats do not rely on echolocation to navigate, using their eyes instead.
Recently, on North Island, I stood under an Indian almond tree like the one pictured here to study a colony of more than 100 bats just a few yards from my hotel. They were impervious to my presence.
Happily, the local habit of making bat curry seems to be dying out. To me they are as emblematic of Seychelles as those other natives, the giant tortoises and the world’s largest plant seed, the mysterious coco de mer.